Effortful retrieval—bleh! The terminology ages more like milk than wine. Fortunately, it’s a concept with substance and one of the main learning strategies promoted in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Most educators have fallen for gimmicks that claim to make learning easier. I know I have. The authors of Make It Stick don’t buy it. Two hundred and fifty pounds will always be difficult to press for most people, and for most people memorizing the essential two hundred and fifty verbs of any foreign language will always take a lot of effort. The solution? Effortful retrieval—”ET” from now on. Recollection that takes a lot of umph.
We are quite familiar with ET’s relative, aka “dipstick tests.” These are often prevalent in online courses. Read, test, move on; read, test, move on. It’s not the worst type of learning. We could force ourselves to sit through fifty-minute lectures and then take a test once every six weeks. But the problem with dipstick testing is that we are compelling students to load and unload information. Like the recycle bin. Knowledge retention is rarely a deliberately calculated objective. We assume students will remember because—why? The content is important to us, the professors?
The data, however, doesn’t support our assumption, which is an unfortunate predicament given the fact that knowledge retention is one of the basic steps in getting to the higher order thinking skills. There’s a reason that Bloom’s Taxonomy keeps “Remembering” at level one, and it’s not because level one is least important. The level is foundational. Foundational concepts are built upon brick by brick so that the edifice—the evidence of our ability to create with the knowledge we retain—changes our horizons. Languages are especially vulnerable to the insufficiencies of dipstick tests; ET aims at retaining knowledge over an extended time period.
So, what is ET really? ET inculcates obstacles for the sole purpose of challenging the student to put more effort into the remembering process with strategies like delayed testing, alternative scenarios, and different but appropriate terminology.
Think of a language course, though the leap to other disciplines is minimal. Students often struggle to remember simple vocabulary words. Add to this difficulty verb conjugations, singular/plural differences, gendered nouns, and the inflections to boot. It’s a lot to remember. If dipstick’s virtue is providing regular testing, ET enhances the regular testing strategies by forcing the student to relearn material multiple times. A very simple strategy can be implemented with vocabulary quizzes in a secondary language class. For Chapter 1, there’s an initial quiz on thirty vocabulary words. When students get to Chapter 2, the instructor gives another vocabulary quiz but this time selects twenty words from Chapter 2 and ten from Chapter 1. For the Chapter 3 quiz, fifteen words come from Chapter 3, eight from Chapter 2, and seven from Chapter 1. You get the picture. Of course, students are informed that they’ll be tested on previous vocabulary chapters, which is the point. They’ll need to relearn previously studied chapters.
But that’s just one simple application of delayed testing. Here’s a more creative ET strategy. I remember when Asher, my older son, tried Boy Scouts for a year. The camp leader told me that the students would learn all of the knots from memory. Eventually, they would not only practice knot-tying indoors at camp meetings but also outside in the dark, which is the more likely scenario of when campers’ abilities would really be tested. What sort of alterations would force the student to remember differently, to retrieve the necessary information within a different context, scenario, location? That is the core set of questions ET attempts to answer. “The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided you succeed,” claims Roediger, “the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.” Make It Stick maintains that there’s no easy way to learn, but certainly a better way.
Maybe you can imagine a time before we Googled what we forgot. Someone asks you to recall the name of an actor from a particular film—say, the lead role in The Shawshank Redemption. You can remember his face, the way he climbs through the sewers of the prison, his triumphant emergence from the culvert and into freedom, and even Morgan Freeman’s great supporting role as Red. But you can’t name the leading actor. So, you go through the letters in the alphabet: A, no; B, huh-uh; C, nein; D, nyet—all the way to R. Something about saying “R” sounds right, and so you attempt a couple of R-names until “Robbins” emerges from the rubble, and you’re good. His first name is Tim. Guess what. You won’t so easily forget his name next time.